The conservation problem is largely focused on large things, birds and mammals, with a few pretty things like butterflies thrown in. What concerns me is the current distortion in the conservation knowledge base available for large animal conservation. I will talk largely about mammals but large birds are equally a problem.
The difficulty is this. It is nearly impossible to study large mammals because they are scarce on the ground, so census methods must be spatially extensive and thus very expensive. One needs a big budget to do this properly, and this effectively rules out university scientists unless they can collaborate with government biologists who have large budgets or private consortia who need the large mammals so they can shoot them. But even with a large budget, a large mammal ecologist cannot be very productive as measured in papers per year of research effort. So the universities in general have shied away from hiring young scientists who might be described as large mammal ecologists. This produces positive feedback in the job market so that few young scientists see this as a viable career.
All of this would be changed if governments were hiring large mammal ecologists. But they are not, with few exceptions. Governments at least in Canada and Australia have been shedding ecologists of all varieties while all the time professing how much they are doing for conservation of threatened species. The advantage of this approach for governments is that they shed high cost biologists, and cover their tracks with some hiring of public relations personnel who have no field costs and perhaps a few biologists who concentrate on small creatures and local problems. So we reach a stalemate when it comes to large mammal conservation. Why do we need polar bear scientists when all they do is make trouble? We can escape such trouble easily. Count the polar bears or the caribou every 5 years or so, so there is consequently much less information that scientists can put their fingers on. (Imagine if we counted the stock market once every 5 years.) The consequence is that in many areas we have large scale, long-term problems with few scientists and only small scale funding to find out what is happening in the field. For polar bears this seems to be partly alleviated by private funding from people who care, while the government shirks its duties for future generations.
For caribou in Canada the situation is worse because the problem is spread over more than half of Canada so the funding and person-power needed for conservation is much larger, and this is further compounded by the immediate conflict of caribou with industrial developments in oil, gas, and forestry. When dollars conflict with conservation needs, it is best not to bet on conservation winning. What good has a polar bear or a caribou done for you?
The potential consequence of all this is that we slowly lose populations of these large iconic species. If this loss is slow enough, no one seems to notice save a few concerned conservation biologists who do not own the newspapers and TV stations. And conservation ecologists grow pessimistic that we can save these large species that require much habitat and freedom from disturbance. The solutions seem to be two. First, build a big fence and keep them in a very large zoo (Packer et al. 2013). This will work for some species like caribou, as Kruger Park in South Africa illustrates so well with African large mammals (but some disagree, Creel et al. 2013). But the fence-solution will not work for polar bears, and our best response for their conservation may be to cross our fingers and hope, all the while trying to slow down the losses in the best way we can. A second solution is to decide that these large mammal conservation situations are not scientific but sociological, and progress can best be made by doing good sociological research to change the attitudes of humans about the value of biodiversity. If this is the solution, we do not need to worry that there are no biologists available to investigate the conservation issues of large mammals.
I think perhaps the bottom line is that it takes a spirited soul to aim for a career in large mammal conservation research and we hope that this happens and the conservation future for large mammals in Canada grows brighter.
Creel, S., 2013. Conserving large populations of lions – the argument for fences has holes. Ecology Letters 16 (5): 635-641. doi: 10.1111/ele.12145.
Packer, C., et al. 2013. Conserving large carnivores: dollars and fence. Ecology Letters. 16: 1413-e3. doi: 10.1111/ele.12091.
Pauly, D. 1995. Anecdotes and the shifting baseline syndrome of fisheries. Trends in Ecology and Evolution 10: 430.